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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Celebrating the sainted

As the Church looks forward this weekend by embracing its past, you and I are called to reflect while we celebrate.

The canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II connects the lives of two popes who, in their service to the Church, reminded us of our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ: to sanctify the world by going into ita task we can only achieve when strengthened by the grace of God.

This is the message of the modern popes—particularly Paul VI and Benedict XVI, and especially Pope Francis. But it is John Paul II and John XXIII that we acknowledge this Sunday of Divine Mercy, and so those of us who seek to enter the world to protect it should pay particular attention to what all this means.

John Paul the Great (Environmentalist)

Imagine what Karol Wojtyla witnessed during World War II and what he saw in Communist regimes in the years after. Imagine the filth poured upon so many remnants of Eden—the filth of war and atheistic, industrialized madness. For a man with a soul like Karol Wojtyla’s, this must have made painfully clear the damage that humanity can do when we shun the grace and the Gospel of God.

And so when he was elevated to Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II did something that made perfect sense. He included ecology into the great teaching document of a pope, an encyclical. He wrote of ecology in his first encyclical, in fact. And he spoke of the topic rather profoundly. (Paul VI had also expressed grace displeasure at what disordered consumption can do to creation. But John Paul II elevated the topic well into the heavens.)

Written in 1979—a year after his election—John Paul II’s first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, “Redeemer of Man,” offers a sweeping introduction to the Person around whom all history is centered. In particular, early in the encyclical the Holy Father calls attention to the Incarnation in light of the Book of Genesis, especially as seen through Saint Paul’s language that creation is groaning. The pontiff makes a particularly striking jump to modern forms of this groaning—to sin’s conquest of a good creation that, now fallen, requires redemption:
Does not the previously unknown immense progress—which has taken place especially in the course of this century—in the field of man’s dominion over the world itself reveal to a previously unknown degree that manifold subjection “to futility”? It is enough to recall certain phenomena, such as the threat of pollution of the natural environment in areas of rapid industrialization, or the armed conflicts continually breaking out over and over again, or the prospectives of self-destruction through the use of atomic, hydrogen, neutron and similar weapons, or the lack of respect for the life of the unborn. The world of the new age, the world of space flights, the world of the previously unattained conquests of science and technology—is it not also the world “groaning in travail” that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”? (Redemptor Hominis, 8)
Later in Redemptor Hominis, we again see the interweaving of both a damaged ecology and a damaged person, which is a theme that will be continued by John Paul II’s predecessors: 
This state of menace for man from what he produces shows itself in various directions and various degrees of intensity. We seem to be increasingly aware of the fact that the exploitation of the earth, the planet on which we are living, demands rational and honest planning. At the same time, exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also for military purposes and the uncontrolled development of technology outside the framework of a long-range authentically humanistic plan often bring with them a threat to man’s natural environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator’s will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble “master” and “guardian”, and not as a heedless “exploiter” and “destroyer”.  (Redemptor Hominis, 15)
After Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II continued to weave ecology into his encyclicals and into other forums. We find the natural environment in his second and third encyclicals, Dives in Misericordia, “Rich in Mercy,” (1980), and Laborem Exercens, “Engaging in Labor,”(1981), issued for the ninetieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. He again discusses ecology in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis “Solicitude of Social Reality,”(1987), issued on the twentieth anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, as well as in Redemptoris Missio, “Mission of Redemption,” (1990). And then on May 1, 1991, John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus, “The One-Hundredth Year,” to call attention to the centenary of Rerum Novarum. In it, we read that  
[e]qually worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him. (Centesimus Annus, 37, emphasis original.)
There is of course much, much more. His 1990 message for the World Day of Peace, for instance, states his ecological thoughts most clearly outside of his encyclicals. It is a highly accessible and brief text that leaves no ambiguity about the Catholic approach the natural environment. 
The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all. There are, however, certain underlying principles, which, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of those involved, can direct research towards adequate and lasting solutions. These principles are essential to the building of a peaceful society; no peaceful society can afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation. (1990 World Day of Peace Message, 7).
Or, as Pope John XXIII put it, “[t]he world will never be the dwellingplace of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved.” (Pacem in Terris, 165).

John XXII, Offering the Gospel to a New Age

Some might ask if John XXIII should be ranked among the Green Popes. After all, if John Paul II is the pope that first placed ecology profoundly within Catholic thought, does that mean his predecessors said nothing of consequence on the matter?


We must remember that even without direct mention of ecological terminology—which in the early 1960s was not yet part of the vernacular of secular or Catholic moral theology—it was nevertheless the inspired activity of John XXIII that provided an opening from which future popes could encounter the globalization of sin.

It was John XXIII that could and did orient the Church away from the smoldering ruins of World War II and toward the coming of a new century—an age that brought much promise but that also fostered giddy and false hopes in unaided human progress.

As pope and pastor, John XXIII surveyed the world and recognized that the Church must engage this conviction in secular progress. As is always her mission, this engagement was intended to position the Church to be with the world when things went sour.

And so John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, among other efforts to offer grace to human history. While the subject of the Council is of course too great to even offer a brief review here, one point should be made: even if the vision of John XXIII was often clouded in practice by too much optimism of too many within the Church (as Joseph Ratzinger would later suggest), given what we now know of the (often ecological) damage done when human activity is stripped of God, the Church had no choice but to follow close by those blinded by the notion of human-induced utopia. The People of God had to consider how to be in the new world, but not of it.

Consider, if you will, the words of John XXIII in what I find to be one of his most poignant and prophetic encyclicals—Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”). 
It has been claimed that in an era of scientific and technical triumphs such as ours man can well afford to rely on his own powers, and construct a very good civilization without God. But the truth is that these very advances in science and technology frequently involve the whole human race in such difficulties as can only be solved in the light of a sincere faith in God, the Creator and Ruler of man and his world. (Mater et Magistra, 209).
Sound familiar? It should, because these words are foundational to those that would follow from Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now, Pope Francis. They are also the thoughts of his predecessors.

Moreover, these are the words spoken by the son of farmers (yes, John XXIII parents worked the land). No wonder he understood so well the value of technology and human labor. And it is similarly no wonder that he could offer cautionary words about failing to follow the laws and cycles of nature—ones that are as true today as they were in May, 1961.

Onward and upward

Because this celebratory post is already quite long, we will pause here with the promise of more—much more—to come. For now, let us join the universal Church is celebrating two men who heeded the Spirit’s call to the priesthood, and then followed it even further. These men continue to teach and inspire us to bring the Gospel into a world stumbling with pride and darkened by sin.

As John XXIII put it, 
[w]e most earnestly beg all Our sons the world over, clergy and laity, to be deeply conscious of the dignity, the nobility, which is theirs through being grafted on to Christ as shoots on a vine: "I am the vine; you the branches.'' They are thus called to a share in His own divine life; and since they are united in mind and spirit with the divine Redeemer even when they are engaged in the affairs of the world, their work becomes a continuation of His work, penetrated with redemptive power. "He that abideth in men, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit." (Mater et Magister, 259.)
So now let us go and bear fruit—that is, after we celebrate. 

A young Karol Wojtyla

Photo credits: Banner image of John XXIII from Flicker/Manhhai (with permission). Banner image of John Paul II from Flickter/Dennis Jarvis (with permission). Banner image of Earth: Istock.  All others public domain. 


  1. Another great blog, Bill. Thank you. May I add Saint John XXIII's words from his encyclical Mater et Magistra? They are among my favorites on magisterial nature and ecology writings.

    "Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life—'Increase and multiply'—and to bring nature into their service—'Fill the earth, and subdue it.' These two commandments are complementary. Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature. On the contrary, it must be brought into the service of human life."

  2. Bill, thanks much! Yes indeed, the eco-message has been alive and well before St. JPII and and within St. John XXIII. Thanks again for adding that quote! God bless, Bill.


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